Saturday, February 23, 2013

A holiday - littorally

In recognizing that I had not had an opportunity to take a break as most do during Christmas and new year - such are the demands of a field biologist - I allowed myself to justify an 11 day respite. A holiday, even.

My co-supervisor Mark Brown, lured me to South Africa and to UKZN with an opportunity for Crowned Eagle research. I arrived in April last year, and it took all of about a month after my arrival to tell me he was to move down to Plettenberg, to start a new appointment managing the newly formed Natures Valley Trust.  Later in the year, having made great friends, I learned he would be taking with him a dear friend, Minke, starting an MSc research project on the Plettenberg Bay Kelp Gulls.

What better place to take a break. An opportunity to reconnect with Mark, to discuss my project, the progress made, and plans for the second year.  And spend quality time with Minke, to get to know her field site and to get a feel for the littoral life.

How to relax on a holiday?
Within six hours of arriving at Plett, I was to present my Crowned Eagle research to a group of 50 from the local Birdlife Club.  This was the first presentation with which to show the first results to come out of the year of research, and it was well received.
Of course, a raptor ringing trip was essential.  A 300km circuit inland and round the Garden Route National Park.  Despite over a dozen opportunities at roadside raptors, mostly of steppe, forest, and jackal buzzards, and a couple of black-shouldered kites, just one Jackal Buzzard was caught and ringed for the day. Another dawn was spent with Mark at his Natures Valley possie, ringing a few birds of the coastal fynbos.  Hello swee waxbill, a new species for me.
To know more of the demands of gull research, it was great to visit both colonies.  Robberg is the rocky headland on the south end of Plettenberg Bay, home to a sizeable seal colony, and the smaller gull colony.  And to the north of Plettenberg Bay is the Keurbooms colony, of some hundred pairs and spread across two sandspits on either side of the estuary mouth. The breeding season had all but come to an end, so no gulls were to be found that we could ring.
And most fortunately, there was an opportunity to go with the Centre for Dolphin Studies vessel, which will become some autumn work for Minke as the whale migration begins.  While no whales were spotted today, a large group of seals were found way out, feeding on sardines, and on the return trip along the surf zone a small family pod of bottlenose dolphins were spotted, surfing the waves on a remote stretch of beach.

Plettenberg Bay from Robberg

Robberg from Plettenberg Bay

Information sign at the Keurbooms gull colony

Kelp Gull at Robberg

Swee waxbill ringed at Natures Valley

the one jackal buzzard caught during our raptor ringing day

Ocean Safaris vessel

cape fur seal heading towards the sardines

Wash up and wrap up

It has been a very long and fruitful season of research on the urban Crowned Eagles.  Because of their very long breeding cycle, the fieldwork pretty much continues throughout the year, from nest building and nesting in spring, and fledging and post fledging survival until the following spring, the intensity of the monitoring is winding down to a relative quiet spell.  The youngsters from the 2012 season are fledged, and they will no doubt be around their respective nests for some months to come. The adults are still flying into the nests with food, as evidenced by the nest cameras which are still operating for as long as this proves productive. But the climbing is thankfully tailing off as the cameras are on a minimal service schedule.  So after a long season it was time to give thanks to my climbing gear, and give them some tender care and a thorough clean.

Nikwax TechWash has been the recommended cleaner by the good folks at Bush n Bundu, where I dare to go when my wallet feels happy.  The guys know their outdoors and their climbing, and so they recommended this Techwash to clean and revitalize my equipment and ensure that none of the strength and integrity is lost.  A clever little technique that Caesar described made scrubbing my 170 meters of rope much easier. Taping two hard-bristle brushes together and running it many times up and down the rope in hot soapy water. I must have scrubbed half a kilometre of rope once I had scrubbed and rinsed it all. It was a little horrifying to see just how much filth came out of the ropes and webbing tapes.

So the early months of post fledging monitoring is as much of a lull in fieldwork as I will see.  With both the risks of mortality to the 2012 juveniles, and the need to monitor new breeding attempts will see the fieldwork speeding up again in May.  So from late January I have used that time to club some writing, getting wholeheartedly into the literature review of the thesis, Chapter One.  This work progressed well, and once handed in, the first draft was quickly returned with a sea of red scrawls across it.  It has been many years since I had tried this academic writing caper, and there is a lot to improve on, in quality and efficiency.  As well as revising this draft, I need to plan data collection for other aspects of the thesis, and write up some methods sections for others.  It has been intensive, and stressful, and a daunting task to look at the seemingly endless work set out ahead.  And thus justify’s the next post.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Into the 'Berg

The entrance gate to Injisuthi

I have just returned from a fantastic three days in the Drakensberg mountains.  I had the pleasure of being invited to help out with a camping and self-development trip.  This is a three day, two night, camping trip that is organised by the Wilderness Training Programme every two years for Waterfall College year 11 and 12’s. 

This year we had a large group.  The hike was headed by Adam White, and alongside me were the three other guides from African Quest, preparing for their Zambian mission by spending a month here in South Africa. We were to watch over the safety of 44 students, take them up to the Grindstone Caves in Injisuthi.  The area is in the northern section of the Golden Gates area of Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and wilderness area. One of just two UNESCO natural heritage sites in South Africa, the Drakensberg is a stunning topographical feature of sandstone cliffs and crags, with rich highland grasslands and crystal clear streams.

The hike up to the Grindstone Caves was a challenge for some, taking four hours to get there in the heat of the afternoon.  We arrived to a pair of caves, the boys squishing into a low roofed dome with a spluttering waterfall offering drinking water and cold showers.  While the group was briefed at this first cave, I pushed on to set up at the girls cave, and steal a quick shower at the waterfall there before the gaggle arrived.  I slept up the top end of the girls cave with my panga and can of mace under my pillow, though I don’t know how much use I would have been if there really was an invasion by baboons or basotho’s.

the Grindstone caves are tucked away under the ledge to the left

young berg adder, maybe

After a very difficult night sleep, thanks to a terrible unnamed snorer nearby, I woke just a little grumpy.  The dawn sun pouring on the mountainside warmed the evaporating dew, and my mood, and we readied the group for a day of activities. After breakfast we started off descending a few hundred meters to the river, where frigid berg water thundered off a waterfall into a shallow plunge pool.  The refreshing dip was followed by a sweaty return up the mountain to the caves. After lunch, the group sidled along the ridge a short distance to another open overhang.  Here were a few beautiful bushman paintings, unfortunately extensively vandalized from many years of abuse and thieving hands.  Adam and I then took a group of seven keen lads on a more challenging 10 km mountain hike to a ridge summit.

On this particular hike, while trudging along the track, single file in peaceful quiet, I began to enjoy the rhythmic breathing, the quiet introspection, and the majesty of the mountains.  I reflected on the amazing months spend hiking and raptor surveying in solitude in the Mongolian mountains.  I recalled a particular ritual performed by the mongolians, and it has been so long, too long, since I last did this.

A feature of mountain passes and summits in Mongolia is the presence of magnificent ovuu (cairn of stones).  The Ovuu are piled high with stones carried from lower down, cluttered with bottles of vodka, and wads of tugrik (money) as offerings.  Tied to sticks embedded within the ovuu are streams of blue silk, flapping into the winds in much the same way as the more familiar Tibetan prayer flags do.  Making offerings to the Eternal Blue Sky and to bless the four winds, while walking three times around the ovuu, for past, present, and future, this was a regular ritual performed while I was there.

Now, perched atop this particular miniature summit in Injisuthi, sits an embryonic ovuu of its own.

a magnificent mongolian ovuu

a uKhahlamba Drakensberg ovuu

The few days was over too quickly and yesterday morning, we packed up the crew and descended back to the main camp.  Had a great lunch (it only takes two days to get over a staple diet of cold cans of spaghetti meatballs and energy bars), and pushed the students back onto the bus back to Durban.

I hope its not too long before returning to The Berg, and hopefully next time to challenge myself on an epic hike.  Next time I might also have time for some birding and wildlife watching. Next time maybe, I will get my Bearded Vulture and Drakensberg Rockjumper.

the adventure group descending the ridge summit

Waterfall College descending from the caves on friday morning